The Coaching Space

By Chris Chittenden

The longer I am involved in the world of coaching, the more convinced I become that coaching is not about compelling people to act in different ways but about creating spaces for them in which they can choose to move differently. There are many parallels between effective coaching and effective management and leadership. These parallels also allow us to look at management and leadership in a different way ... how to generate spaces for people.

Too often, I watch as people try to coerce others to do what they want them to do. They brow beat them, use their authority, threaten them, offer them incentives, get angry, plead. The different strategies are endless. No doubt, all of these approaches to changing people's behaviour lead to some success. People do respond to these strategies, however their response is based on the external stimulus - the threat, the need to please others, fear and so on. When the stimulus is removed, the person tends to return to the way they prefer to do things. The change is usually temporary at best.

As coaches, we are trained to help people change the way they do things in life. To become more effective in achieving the outcomes they want. None of our work is based on coercion, rather we seek to develop spaces for people within which they can effectively take new actions.

From a coaching perspective, the first and most important of these conceptual spaces is the "Coaching Space". The "Coaching Space" is one where the Coach and their client are engaged in genuine coaching conversations. When a client first comes to see a Coach, they often find themselves feeling apprehensive and uncertain about what will occur. As a Coach, it is critical we recognise that coaching does not begin as soon as the client walks through the door. They may not feel they have anything to learn. Even if they see something to be learnt, they may not choose to learn - they may not see the need given where they are in life. Seeing there is something to learn and wanting to learn is still not enough. Often people do not feel they are able to learn - they lack confidence in their ability to change. Given the person wants to learn and feels confident in their ability, they may still not give the Coach permission to facilitate their learning. In any of these situaitons, we can say the client is not in the "Coaching Space" and is not likely to gain much from the coaching experience.

Therefore it is vital for the Coach to begin their relationship with a new client by ensuring and, if necessary, establishing a "Coaching Space". One where the client sees something worthwhile for them to learn, is confident of their ability to learn, trusts their Coach and grants them the authority to be their teacher. Until these elements are in place, the Coach will be pushing uphill to successfully engage with their client.

For the Coach, it is important to recognise the fluidity of this space. Because it exists today, does not mean it will be there tomorrow. One of the Coach's fundamental jobs is to continue building the trust and authority that allows for the maintenance and growth of the "Coaching Space".

A similar situation exists for any manager or leader. They must initially establish a space similar to the "Coaching Space", where the people reporting to them hold them as trustworthy and give them the authority to manage and lead. Trust and authority are not there simply because someone is the manager, yet all too often we see people coming into new management roles totally focused on the tasks to be achieved and paying no heed to the space in which these things will be done.

Although, we are not saying that tasks are unimportant, we are convinced that managers would be far more effective if they initially focused on creating a space conducive with what they want to achieve rather than jumping straight into task mode. To do so requires an understanding of people's way of being and the skills to create the space required for them to learn and take effective action. Given this requirement, it is not surprising that there has been such a recent upsurge in developing the manager as a coach.

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© 2003 Chris Chittenden